TV Review: CBS’ ‘Three Rivers’

10.03.09 8 years ago 2 Comments


The original “Three Rivers” pilot sent to critics in May was not really a TV show. It was a premise — organ transplant surgeons — and the core of a cast — Alex O’Loughlin and Katherine Moennig, mostly — but no tone or pace or workable structure. 

When “Three Rivers” premieres on Sunday (Oct. 4), viewers won’t see that original pilot. They also won’t see the reshot version of that pilot. They’ll see an entirely different episode and, even though they won’t know it, they’re also seeing an entirely different show.

The new “Three Rivers” has a little flash, a little style and some sense of where it fits in. Although it isn’t produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and although it isn’t part of the “NCIS” family, “Three Rivers” now actually feels like a CBS Medical Drama. And yes, that means it’s resolutely procedural, somewhat surface-oriented and capable of being insanely manipultative. And no, this doesn’t mean that “Three Rivers” is necessarily a show I think is very good. But this is now a show with a chance to succeed, which it was not before. 

My review of “Three Rivers” after the break…

“Three Rivers” focuses on the surgeons at a Pittsburgh hospital that we’re told repeatedly is the preeminent transplant hospital. Leading the team is Dr. Andy Yablonski (O’Loughlin), the preeminent transplant surgeon at the preeminent transplant hospital. Yablonski, who has one of those names that other characters just love saying, is frequently late for meetings and can’t be bothered to program ring-tones onto his cell phone and if you think you’re entitled to anymore information that that, you’re wrong. His co-workers include Dr. Miranda Foster (Moennig), the chip-on-her-shoulder daughter of the preeminent surgeon who helped build up this preeminent hospital. There’s also Dr. David Lee (Daniel Henney), who has no demonstrable character traits or skills in the premiere, and new transplant coordinator Ryan (Christopher J. Hanke), who’s one of those characters writers use to make exposition seem less oppressively expositional. Finally, their boss is Dr. Sophia Jordon, a character so preeminent that Alfre Woodward is replacing two actors from the original pilot, not that the premiere does much to justify the presence of an actor of Woodard’s stature.

The original conception of “Three Rivers” was that episodes would take a pretty much equal spl
it between the three parts of the organ transplant process: The donor, the recipient and the heroic doctors, with an obvious bias toward the doctors, because they’re dreamy. Now, “Three Rivers” feels like less of a three-hander and more of a traditional procedural, though a new stylistic quirk involves cutting to commercial with a three-color split-screen showing the different in-progress plotlines.

The episode begins by establishing the future donor and the future recipient utilizing that tried-and-true “House” diversion technique: You see one person who looks like an obvious potential patient, but they’re actually OK and the seemingly healthy person who expresses concern over their welfare is the one who goes down. From there, “Three Rivers” is more of a watch-the-clock thriller — Will we get the organ harvested in time? Will we get the organ transplanted in time? Will it take? In the new premiere, there’s even a medical B-plot that has nothing to do with transplants at all, a choice I’m not totally sure works.

It’s now very down-the-middle and less format-challenging that the show CBS original boasted they were picking up. That’s good, though, because CBS isn’t so good with “format-challenging” and “Three Rivers” is already going to be a tough sell.

There’s no getting around one major problem on “Three Rivers”: Every week, somebody who wasn’t supposed to die is going to die. Otherwise, we don’t get their organs. In the usual season, “House” kills maybe one or two patients. “Grey’s Anatomy” kills doctors and patients alike, but the Seattle Grace survival rate is still above average. On “Three Rivers,” in order to save one life, another will end and that means that every episode is probably going have a healthy amount of grieving in its first half. And if you’re bumming viewers out in the first half, you’ve got to make sure that the final act is extra, extra, extra emotionally satisfying. So “Three Rivers” isn’t going to leave any heartstrings untugged and I’m just guessing that they’re going to have to shy away from rejected organs, because any episode that has one person dying to save the life of a second person who dies anyway is going to be nearly unbearably depressing. 

“Three Rivers” was created by Carol Barbee, who knows a thing or two about mass manipulation from her time on “Jericho” and the thing I’ll give her credit for is not playing coy. She makes sure the melodramatic music is pitched to the rafters and that nary an onscreen character doesn’t have red-rimmed eyes. Personally? I felt jerked around in the premiere just as I felt jerked around in the original pilot and the odds of my wanting to experience this sort of mawkishness of a weekly basis is low. But at least the premiere looked better doing it. 

With O’Loughlin, CBS is sure they have a star-in-the-making. Of course, they had the same star-in-the-making on “Moonlight,” but nobody at the network had the foresight to anticipate the advantages of being ahead of the “Twilight”/”True Blood”/”Vampire Diaries” bloodsucking curve. The new  premiere asks him to do little more than express earnest concern a few times. The writers may, however, have just decided to ease O’Loughlin in after hearing his difficulties with the medical jargon, as you can almost see him squinting at the phonetic spellings of certain terms on the cue cards in the background. 

To get an idea of how focus group testing can impact a show, I wish you could all compare Katherine Moennig in the original pilot to Katherine Moennig here. In the pilot, she was angry and brooding. Her character pouted, mumbled, wore only eye-liner and didn’t seem to have washed her choppy hair for weeks. Now, Moennig is suddenly soft and pretty and her feathered hair looks like she just rolled into the ER from a salon. It’s jarring, because Moennig’s body language and physical mannerisms haven’t correspondingly changed. She still slouches and walks with her hands in her pockets, some remnant of either the original character or the actress’ normal instincts, if memory of her work on “The L Word” serves. The character in the original pilot seemed a bit dangerous, disturbed and interesting. She’s none of those things now, but I’m betting that a bunch of test cards came back with “not likable” written next to her name. Not my favorite part of the creative process. And not an asset to “Three Rivers.”

Hanke, a newcomer, is the only other actor to really register in the premiere, adding a couple welcome notes of humor and getting his share of the heartfelt stuff.

I know I just disparaged the testing and evolution process that “Three Rivers” underwent, but it’s definitely a show that people are more likely to enjoy now and, having seen both forms, it apparently was never going to be a show I could completely get behind. But it’s more effective and more commercial now, so that will play. Now why is CBS sticking it after “Amazing Race” (an Emmy juggernaut, but hardly a ratings champ) on Sunday night against “Desperate Housewives”?

“Three Rivers” premieres on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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